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The History Of International Women's Day

An equal rights march marking International Women's Day, London, 6th March 1971.

Happy International Women’s Day, everyone! Said to date back to a protest for women’s voting rights in New York in 1908, IWD is now a universal celebration of women’s social and political achievements. This year’s theme of #pressforprogress is a nod to #metoo, #timesup and the growing global activism for equality. In honour of the day, here are some of the biggest moments in the women’s movement over the past 100 years.

Women get the vote

Where it all began… it’s a truth, universally acknowledged, that most politicians only listen to people who can vote for them. Any fight for equality, therefore, had to begin with this basic right.

A sufragette parade in New York City in 1913
Sufragette Parade New York City 1913

When 15,000 women flooded the streets of New York back in 1908, only a few US states and a handful of jurisdictions worldwide allowed women to vote in elections. Following a global campaign for suffrage and women’s substantial contribution during WW1, several Western countries granted women the vote during the interwar period, including Britain in 1918. (Though New Zealand led the way, granting votes to women way back in 1893.)

A few exceptions included France (1944), Greece (1952) and Liechtenstein, which finally changed its laws in 1984. Most Latin American countries had granted women the vote by the 1950s. It was in December 2015, that Saudi Arabian women were finally allowed to vote in municipal elections for the first time. This was two years before they were allowed to drive.

Nasa’s secret weapon

Though not an actual trade secret, NASA did little, at the time, to publicise that fact that dozens of women of colour, still forced to sit at the back of the bus and use separate toilets, played a pivotal role in its operations from the 1940s onwards.

Nasa mathematician and physicist Katherine Johnson pictured at work in 1966
Katherine Johnson, NASA mathematician and physicist in 1966

Hidden Figures (2016), based on the book of the same name, tells the story of how three of these “human computers”, helped John Glenn to become the first American to orbit the Earth. Years after mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan broke through boundaries of gender and race to excel in their fields, women working in science and technology still face stigma. As demonstrated by Nobel Prize winner Tim Hunt’s excruciating comments, ridiculed by Twitter, a year before the film’s release.

Along came the ‘60s

No era is more synonymous with women’s liberation than the 1960s and its “sexual revolution”. The year after three black women sent John Glenn into space, Betty Friedan’s cult book The Female Mystique, was hailed the bible of second-wave feminism. In its backlash against the 1950’s housewife cult, Friedan argued women could never be truly fulfilled without the freedom to find meaningful work and reclaim their identities.

Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique in 1963
Betty Friedan photographed by Lynn Gilbert, 1981

A global civil rights movement exploded, breaking through fundamental social taboos, around how women should dress, act and conduct sexual relationships. The contraceptive pill, first invented in the 1950s, was increasingly available. Feminists fought against legal restrictions to abortion. The workplace began to fully open up to women, beyond the so-called “pink-collar” jobs of secretary, teacher or nurse. The first law suits on equal pay also began to appear.

1975, when mums didn’t go to Iceland and the sausages were sold out

On 24 October, 1975, women of Iceland “took the day off”. Across the nation, 90% of women didn’t show up to work, left their families for the day, and gathered in the streets of Reykjavik for a huge rally. Described by one female participant as a “quiet revolution”, the results were mind-blowing. Iceland’s newspapers were half the normal size and only reported on the strike.

Schools, shops and nurseries closed. Sausages, the nation’s favourite ready meal sold out in all supermarkets. Employers struggled on skeleton staff, while also accommodating hordes of young children brought into work by their fathers (who would come to call the day the “long Friday”!).

Vigdis Finnbogadottir, first female President of Iceland, with Margaret Thatcher, Britain's first female PM, Downing St, 1982
Vigdis Finnbogadottir, first female President of Iceland, with Margaret Thatcher, Britain's first female PM, Downing St, 1982

Five years later, Vigdis Finnbogadottir the first democratically-elected female president in Iceland and the world. Serving until 1996, she went on to be the longest serving of both.

#metoo #timesup and Twitter explodes

It’s impossible to talk about this year’s International Women’s Day without mentioning the watershed #metoo movement. Coined a decade earlier, by activist Tarana Burke, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted the phrase “me too” in October 2017, and within 3 months, the hashtag had been used almost 6.5 million times on Twitter and Facebook. Hollywood’s Time’s Up swiftly followed.

A picture of Alyssa Milano who was the originator of the #MeToo movement
Alyssa Milano, sparked off the Twitter #metoo movement

Harvey Weinstein’s downfall set off a domino effect, exposing seemingly untouchable men from actors to journalists to high-ranking politicians. At the same time, social media and the so-called fourth wave of feminism, have their pitfalls. Caroline Criado-Perez successfully campaigned for Jane Austen to appear on the £10 note, only to bombarded with death and rape threats on Twitter. Women now have revenge porn to fear, alongside other forms of harassment.

Journalist Caroline Criado-Perez awarded an OBE in 2016
Journalist Caroline Criado-Perez, awarded an OBE in 2016

And while Time’s 2017 People of the Year  were the “silence-breakers”, the 2016 accolade belonged to a certain Twitter enthusiast, voted for by millions of American women, despite his threat to grab them by the  p***y.

As feminism advances, some critics argue that women of colour are not being adequately supported by the “cause”. Another growing concern is some feminists’ refusal to accept trans-women. One thing seems certain though, with the World Economic Forum predicting it will take another 170 years to achieve gender equality in the workplace, we are likely to celebrate 8th March for some time to come.